In its fight against Palestinian terrorism, Israeli intelligence is especially interested in couriers the envoys who convey messages between underground cells. An improvement over the years in Israel's ability to intercept telephone communications has pushed Palestinian terror organizations to increase their dependency on couriers, thereby increasing opportunities for Israeli intelligence. Couriers usually know operatives in several cells. When arrested, they're usually carrying documents and money that incriminate them and make for easy conviction. The couriers' vulnerability makes them valuable targets for recruitment as intelligence sources and as double agents.
These details are revealed by Avi Dichter, the MK-designate from Kadima and former Shin Bet chief, in an analysis paper released in Washington this month. Dichter wrote the paper (together with an American researcher, Daniel Byman) under the auspices of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy-Brookings Institution. The revelation distressed the security establishment and bred a vain attempt to prevent its publication in Israel.
In describing the process of approving targeted assassinations, Dichter writes that this method is usually less effective than arrests, which yield information under interrogation. The targets are key people in terror organizations, the brains behind the attacks, who are hard to arrest without exposing the security forces to substantial risk since they are surrounded by bodyguards or else by innocent citizens. Targeted assassination requires precise intelligence ahead of time, conveyed "laterally" from one intelligence agency to another (say, from the Shin Bet to Military Intelligence) even before it is conveyed "vertically" (to Shin Bet headquarters).
The initial target selection weeds out anyone who might be arrested with ease. Then the intelligence branches conduct a careful assessment of the names, and only "the most dangerous arch terrorists" make the final cut. Arch terrorists are defined as leaders, senior planners of terrorist attacks or explosives experts, whose removal will have a significant impact on the functioning of the organization. Defense Ministry officials and other senior people in the political echelon are also involved in the process of selecting the targets, since the decision to kill requires the prime minister's approval. For the operation itself, sources are employed to verify the suspects' identity and examine their immediate surrounding for noncombatants.
Such assassinations may appear sometimes to backfire, since many join to avenge the target's death, Dichter writes, but such mass enlistment does not necessarily make a terror organization more effective. Hamas has never had trouble recruiting operatives; their problem has been the lack of an experienced cadre to maximize the recruits' potential. As the rate of arrests and targeted assassinations increased in 2004, Hamas' operations in the West Bank "became more and more amateurish" and led to few Israeli deaths. Dichter recounted that in many instances Palestinian officials told the Israelis in private that they were glad a target was killed, because his elimination made it easier for them to rule.
According to Dichter, Israel found that it pays to apply strategic thinking to the issue of arrests. Not every terror suspect can be arrested; suspects in Israel have to be brought before a judge to extend their remand after seven days; and their cohorts might meanwhile go underground. So the Shin Bet initially limits the number of detainees and waits until it has enough information to quash the entire cell, despite the risk that cell members might carry out attacks in the interim. Planners, recruiters and explosives experts top the arrest priorities.
Dichter also praised the checkpoints in the territories. Terrorists try to circumvent them, but that attempt at evasion is precisely what enables the Shin Bet to identify them.
In discussing the fiscal leverage Israel attempted to wield to spur the Palestinian Authority into combating terrorism, Dichter lambasted Ariel Sharon's capitulation to American and European pressure to transfer tax receipts to Yasser Arafat, totaling $450 million a year. Dichter wrote that this revenue subsidized terrorism and corruption, while bolstering a regime that repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to fight terror. The PA did not control broad swaths of its territories, particularly in Gaza, where many of its leaders resided. In the West Bank the PA enjoyed supremacy over Hamas, but PA leaders feared Hamas would take revenge on their Gazan relatives. To Israel's disappointment, the PA refrained from moving the families to the safer West Bank or appointing officials who could operate without fear of revenge.
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